Utah Valley Global Health Group

A blog about global health for those living in Utah Valley and their friends.

Obtaining meaningful work in international health and development

Posted by kdearden on April 21, 2008

Financing for not-for-profit work is filled with lots of ups and downs. Sometimes there is a lot of funding available for child survival work (for example, malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS) and sometimes it dries up. As a consequence, those wishing to work in international health and development need to be able to market themselves well and, ultimately, get jobs when funding is scarce. Here are 10 tips to getting started with your first (or second or third) internship (or job) in international health:

Strategies for Securing Meaningful Work in International Health:

1. Pursue a graduate degree (immediately after a bachelor’s degree in most cases)
• usually an MPH or a degree in a social science discipline
• clinical degree (MD, RN, CNM) with an MPH is also very good
• you may want to consider a doctorate in public health

2. Obtain practical experience in the field of international health
• Volunteer opportunities, paid internships, missionary service, full-time employment
• The more overseas experience you have, the better
• The greater the geographic coverage the better (Asia/Africa: high demand)

3. Learn at least one other language (Spanish, French, Portuguese, Arabic)

4. Develop and refine skills that are in demand in international health
• Behavior Change Communications (including social marketing)
• Epidemiology, biostatistics, demography
• Qualitative research methods
• Expertise in monitoring, evaluation and applied research
• Training of Trainers
• Community mobilization/community-based development
• Others

6. Publish peer-reviewed articles, manuals, etc.

7. Write proposals and secure funding

8. Be concise about your professional objectives

9. Don’t limit your hands-on work experience to local LDS-based not-for profits

10. Secure strong references

11. Network using open-ended questions (who else is working in X?)

12. Follow your bliss!

“But if a person has had the sense of the call—the feeling that there’s an adventure for him—and if he doesn’t follow that, but remains in the society because it’s safe and secure, then life dries up. And then he comes to that condition in late middle age: he’s gotten to the top of the ladder, and found that it’s against the wrong wall.”
–Joseph Campbell, An Open Life


4 Responses to “Obtaining meaningful work in international health and development”

  1. benjamincrookston said

    Great advice, Kirk! This is a post that all who are embarking (and even those who have embarked) into global health should read. I can definitely attest to the truthfulness of each point of advice, except the second language which I am working on.

  2. Ryan Lindsay said


    As a first year MPH student at BYU I felt I got ripped off when I heard you were leaving…I’m glad I can still gather some advice from you!

  3. chads said

    Great advice, Kirk. Thanks. Since reading the post a few days ago, I’ve been thinking about what “meaningful work” means. That is, have you ever found that funding and/or job opportunities lead you in directions that are either against your personal philosophy, or downright ineffective? If so, how do you deal with that?

  4. Kirk Dearden said

    Chad…good point about meaningful work. I suppose ‘meaningful’ needs to be defined by each person. Everyone will have his or her own definition. For me it means contributing in some sort of substantive way to the success of a program designed to help others. I’ve felt like my contributions have been meaningful when I work with a GOOD program overseas and–taking from what I’ve learned from another program elsewhere–make that program at least a little better using a new approach that really mobilizes and empowers the community. ‘Meaningful’ also means helping really promising programs document the impact they’ve had. More recently, ‘meaningful’ means working with students who are fired up about international health so that we can share insights and experiences.

    As for funding and job opportunities…as you know, funding goes up and down so one must be adept at finding jobs frequently. Sometimes those jobs are not nearly as interesting. I’ve only had one job that I thought was not so interesting. As for ineffective, I think there’s a lot of ‘ineffective’ work out there and it can be frustrating working with such programs. Broadly speaking, I find universities and research institutes aren’t very good at development work. Likewise, NGOs are not so good at rigorous research. So trying to do one or the other in an unfamiliar setting can be frustrating. The trick is to hook up with the type of organization where you’d like to work–recognize the limits of that organization and partner with an organization that does certain things better than you do. For example, if you work in an NGO, get a university to do the research. It’s actually quite fun making these links!

    Regarding personal philosophies, it’s been relatively rare that I’ve been put in a situation where the philosophy of an organization differs from my own…but students and others should be aware that this potential exists. For example, I once worked at an organization that promoted post-abortion care (PAC) though they didn’t promote abortions per se. I had to rectify that approach with my own understanding of the gospel and the church’s position on abortion. As it turned out, I was never asked to work in PAC, but the experience made me think more deeply about reproductive health.

    In general, folks working in international health tend to be overwhelmingly progressive in their political orientations. I’m quite liberal myself so it doesn’t create many problems for me (on most but not all issues). Those with a more conservative approach should be aware of this and decide whether they want to work in those types of organizations and if so, what adjustments they might need to make. That said, I think there needs to be a better balance of liberals and conservatives in public health. Being conservative and working in international health is like being a democrat in Utah…it’s a lonely life!

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